The State of Texas wants to write your syllabus for you.

15 09 2010

Back in July, my friend from the other side of the Psychology Building, Doug Eskew, took me to task for supporting a Texas law that is going to force professors there to post there syllabi online. Well, there’s an article on it in the new Academe and it turns out that he was right and I was (mostly) wrong.

Let’s look at the details of the legislation as explained in that article:

This September, public universities in Texas will be required to post on their Web sites detailed syllabi for all undergraduate courses, a curriculum vitae for each regular instructor, a departmental budget report for each course offered, and reports of student course evaluations. And, according to a new state law, all of this must be “accessible from the institution’s Internet website home page by use of not more than three links, searchable by keywords and phrases, and accessible to the public without requiring registration or use of a user name, a password, or another user identification.”

While the three clicks requirement just strikes me as anal retentive, bypassing the cv requirement for adjunct faculty is self-defeating. When my daughter goes to college in two years, I’d really like to be able to know whether all that tuition money is only getting her an overworked adjunct. However, as the article makes clear, the group behind the law has no intention of using it that way:

Posting faculty syllabi, says the Pope Center report, will “expose a professor’s deviation from normal expectations. . . . Parents would be able to better decide whether their tuition payments are going for a good cause or are being wasted on mental pablum.” Putting syllabi on the Internet will allow students “to avoid redundancy and eliminate intellectual ‘holes’ in their education.” The report’s closing argument suggests that higher education watchdogs will be better able to monitor online syllabi to see which schools of thought a particular college adheres to and whether “professors are using the classroom to further their own political agendas.”

How can you tell from someone’s syllabus whether they’re “using the classroom to further their own political agendas?” To me, that’s the really interesting thing here, the State of Texas is actually defining what has to be in your syllabus. This is the relevant part of the law:

(1) a syllabus that:
(A) satisfies any standards adopted by the institution;
(B) provides a brief description of each major course requirement, including each major assignment and examination;
(C) lists any required or recommended reading;
(D) provides a general description of the subject matter of each lecture or discussion;

These all seem like lovely things to have on one’s syllabus, and as I think I wrote in July, I think it’s just good advertising to include all this stuff on your syllabus anyways, but suppose I want to assign a research paper so long and so complicated that the instructions run three pages long. Why does that have to be on the syllabus? Or suppose I haven’t written that assignment seven days after the class starts? Is the State of Texas going to haul me in? How many words do I have to have in my “general description of the subject matter of each lecture or discussion?” I know plenty of people who can’t do that until they figure out the speed at which they’ll work through the material. What does the State of Texas have to say about that?

I thought conservatives were supposed to be for big government getting out of the way so that people can do their jobs. I guess that ideology doesn’t apply to teachers, government employees or any other group that tends to vote for Democrats in a Republican-run state.



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